Political Debates Weren’t Always This Exciting

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tags: election 2016, debates



Josh Zeitz has taught American history and politics at Cambridge University and Princeton University and is the author of Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln's Image. He is currently writing a book on the making of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Follow him @joshuamzeitz.

There are some civil rituals that Americans love to hate, and presidential debates are one of them. Since their modern inception in 1960, the percentage of voting-age Americans who reported viewing the most widely viewed debate of each cycle has dropped from over 60 percent to just 28 percent, suggesting that fewer of our countrymen see lasting value in these quadrennial lineups.

Political scientists also take a dim view of their utility. Writing for Washington Monthly in 2012, John Sides found that “scholars who have looked most carefully at the data have found that, when it comes to shifting enough votes to decide the outcome of the election, presidential debates have rarely, if ever, mattered.”

Even the candidates have a long history of lamenting the surfeit of pageantry and absence of substance that the modern televised debate seems to incite. “We haven’t really joined a debate,” observed former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who vied for the Democratic nomination in 1988. “You know, you listen to candidates and you think, they’re all just talking.” The same year, Jesse Jackson worried that “we’re trapped in these 90-second sound bites trying to say things that make a difference.” “Some way must be found to get past the slogans,” Gary Hart implored.

If it was challenging to engage in a thoughtful discussion in 1988, when nine Democrats of credible stature contended in early presidential primaries, it must be maddening for today’s band of current and former GOP officeholders seeking to be heard against the din. The entire process is no less satisfying for GOP voters. Even as the ink was still drying on Thursday’s roster, a Monmouth University poll found that registered Republicans overwhelmingly oppose Fox News’ decision to cap the number of participants at ten. Over two-thirds surveyed would prefer that either all Republican contestants appear on stage together, or that they be randomly divided in two alternating groups.

Given the widespread and longstanding dissatisfaction with presidential debates, one would think that they are as timeless an institution as elections themselves. And yet, they are not. The first presidential primary debates weren’t staged until several years after World War II, and it wasn’t until 1976 that it became routine for major-party nominees to square off every four years. It’s tempting to view the storied presidential debate as another casualty of television. But the debates are scarcely older than TV and, in many ways, owe their ascendant influence to the power of the small screen. ...






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